(Vanguard of Sunday, January 7, 2007)
We are still mourning the roasting of hundreds of our people who, for reasons that we very recklessly ignore, went fetching fuel from a burst NNPC pipe in the outskirts of Lagos during Christmas. That was not the first time our people would meet their death while scooping fuel from burst pipes through which refined petroleum products flow to other parts of the country. But each time we experience that type of tragedy, we pontificate on those moral grounds why the people should not go breaking the commandment that “Thou shall not steal.” How could people destroy pipes to take what is not theirs, what they did not pay for, we charge. Some careless people even say those who died invited death to themselves.
These conclusions would stand, even be commended but for the fact that the roasting of people when fuel from burst pipes embrace a naked flame would have been avoided. The deaths fall into that category of events which I will never accept had been ordained by God. God did not ordain that a pipe would be tampered with by fuel robbers; nor did he ordain that hundreds of Nigerians would leave their homes in search of the product which had become scarce all over the country and sent fuel prices rocketing to heights no one would have been bold enough to predict.
No, God did not ordain that Thisday Editorial Board chairman, Godwin Agbroko, would be stopped under an unlit part of a federal highway in the city, and be shot dead after he had done a day’s job. No, God did not ordain that Funsho Williams would be strangled to death by those who found their way mysteriously into his apartment. Nor did those who killed Bola Ige whose case the Police are reported to have now laid to rest, ordained by God to kill our legal icon. God did not ordain the deaths during 2006 of some of our finest military officers as a result of the crash of an aircraft that did not have all it takes to fly in hilly terrain and rough weather.
No, you cannot tell me that God ordained the death of Sultan Maccido and all the passengers in the Bellview airliner that crashed in Abuja. And no one is going to tell me that God had a hand in the disasters that have been reflected in collapsed buildings, and hundreds of trailer accidents on the rough roads which Tell magazine of the week ending tomorrow gave samples of. Open at pages 38 – 40 and see in colour what the magazine is telling us about The Nation titled “Bumpy Roads to Christmas”. Tell reflects the shame of a nation in Owerri Road, Aba; the East-West Road, Port Harcourt; Garden Avenue, Enugu; Onitsha-Owerri Road; Iweka Road, Onitsha; Oguta Road, Onitsha; Ibadan-Oyo-Ilorin Road; Aba-Ikot Ekpene Road; Lagos-Benin Express Road, and the road linking Orlu and Oka towns where it is cut completely in two by a gully erosion. This shame is, as seen, the indiscipline a country has manifested in carrying out its responsibility to provide motorable roads.
Christmas witnessed another area of national indiscipline, the unbelievable and indefensible neglect of a nation to provide jobs for its citizens, and attend to those people-centred areas of care which would have witnessed many who died not being where death lurked because they were doing something more worthy to earn a living from than fetching fuel.
Any time we announce avoidable deaths, my mind goes straight to the most ill-advised national step we took in 2005, the so-called forgiveness of debt which saw us parting with $12 billion on which we even offered to pay commission! Where there are bad roads and collapsed buildings without adequate fire service equipment and hunger and poverty and massive unemployment, I think of what we would have done with that money we gave away, a disgraceful act which was so nationally applauded that we went further to pay the London Club some other very good money, even when we are borrowing from China to build railroads!
If all this makes sense to you, it does not to me, a layman, nor does it seem sensible to Dr. Chu Okongwu, one of the most competent hands that has passed through the portals of the Ministry of Finance as Minister. When we were rushing to pay money to the Paris Club even before they formalized the procedure for demanding it, Chu warned us of crying demands in the home front. He called his approach one of charity beginning at home. Why not put your home in order before you want to impress those you are indebted to? Why not grow your home base and begin to be seen to be making it, so that other countries would rush in to invest.
Oh yes, that is what attracts them — how you are doing at home; how much peace you have, how stable the polity is, what the future shows. But giving away good money would never bring any investments on your terms. No one listened to Chu. If we had listened to Chu, we would have put certain things in order, or begun to put a few things on the ground, which would have seen some of those roasted while fetching fuel gainfully engaged in factories or roads or rail lines or small scale industries. While we were owing pensioners and local contractors billions of naira, thus dis-empowering them, we handed over to foreign creditors billions of dollars which we would have spent at home to generate funds to meet our internal and even external commitments.
Chu warned us when we were packaging the billions of dollars we were going to hand over to the Paris Club that we had problems at home which no serious government should underestimate or ignore. He identified them as “the appalling state of decay of the broad national equipment – the complex of failed infrastructure, failed public organizations and failed institutions; the unprecedented desolation of the polity, and the structural unconcern of government.”
He conceded that the perilous state, the result of years of political-economic mismanagement, had severely worsened and that it impacted on all economic sectors, all aspects of social life, “and portends grave dangers for society.” He was ignored. But he did draw attention to the loss of social peace, orderliness and security. Hear him, “There is the loss of community. Normal conduct of socio-economic life by the individual is well-nigh impossible. Frustrated at every turn by the inefficiencies and blockages of public policy, the genuine enterpriser’s story is a catalogue of daily woes, while the masses are overwhelmed with despair and cynicism. No level or branch of government is free from its corrosive debilitating effects. Even the oil enclave is subject to its blight. The decay has inevitably taken a toll on quality standards and their administration.”
And so, at Christmas, we saw what could result from neglect of facilities, be they roads or hospitals or schools or factories or pipelines. Our people, many of them unemployed, went in search of what to eat, what to keep body and soul together because there was nowhere else to go. And they did not return home. They were burnt to charcoal, and buried in a mass grave! And someone will tell me God gives and God takes!
The churches, the mosques must refocus what they are teaching us when they tell us that God gives and God takes. God gives and He will take when we reject what He has given. He gave us life and when we throw it back at Him, He will take it even before it is our time to have it returned.
I must be boring you with the way I have suggested we ought to have spent the $12 billion we gave to the Paris Club. If we had invested it at home, empowering our people with the senatorial districts as units of empowerment, we would have had at their disposal (that is 109 empowerment districts) at least one billion a year for at least 15 years. This is one way out of many in utilizing limited resources, not getting so pre-occupied with satisfying foreign interests that the people are left to suffer. Are governments no longer there because of the security and welfare of its citizens? Have we failed to ask Lee Kuan Yew how he met all western demands on growing the economy of his small country except their insistence that he deprived the people of their sustenance by throwing them out of jobs?
The 2007 elections must be fought on issues, not personalities. There are so many issues to attend to than insulting people and accusing them of offences we are not in a position to prove. You must ask yourselves what has happened since 1999 that we can be proud of and take to the marketplace for a celebration. But have you been registered to vote in the 2007 elections? If you haven’t, please do so if you are 18 and above; and in April, do not only insist on voting, stay right there at the polling station to ensure your votes are counted, and send text messages to your co-ordinators telling them of the results at that polling station where the results must be announced before they are sent away for collation. You would have then joined the long list of those who must answer their father’s names in a new Nigeria everyone is asking for and whose emergence will depend on what you do with the only weapon you have in a democracy, the right to choose those who govern.
(Published in Vol 2 of Democracy Watch, A Monitor’s Diary by Tony Momoh, pages 257 – 261; Lagos 2008)